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What it's like to be a street photographer

February 4, 2013, 10:32 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1355

By riazhussain

In the past artists, poets were focused on the lives of kings, queens, and royal dignitaries. Modern era has witnessed a change. Writers, poets and artists began to focus on common man. Novelists and short story writers began to focus on the psychological conflcits of common people . A similar change occurred in the field of photography. Artists in the past would paint and draw portraits of people of social importance. As the world moved towards modern times, the focus has shifted to streets and ordinary life. Photographers began to realize the photographic potential of life on the street. So, street photography emerged in the 19th century.

This art form focuses on daily life scenes in streets, parks, markets, malls, festivals and the like. Street photography presents us with powerful images of people going about their daily business, street beggars, poor people with shabby appearances, homeless people sleeping on the pavement, kids, lovers, melancholic scenes, jugglers, old people and other aspects, shapes, and shades of life on the streets. It tries to show life as it is.  But it tries to show familiar life with a poignant and moving angle.  It focuses on unguarded intances in life. It captures meaningful moments on the streets. Many masterpieces of this genre in photography have been created. Street photographers carry portable cameras. This story tells us of such a photographer, Mat McDermott.


Mat McDermott is 39-year-old. He was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in rural Connecticut, in Colorado, Vermont, and in London. Now he lives in New York City. His professional career has been varied: he has assisted with land surveying, did a couple seasons of field labor on a commercial flower farm, delivered food, and repaired computers -- and that was just before he graduated college. After that, he was a production manager of a small weekly newspaper, did freelance graphic design work, as well as documentary and commercial photography. He has worked on roughly 75 film productions, mostly in the camera department. For the past several years, until very recently, he was the business and energy editor for TreeHugger.com, one of the world's leading environmental websites. At the moment, Mat is doing some freelance writing and he is doing a 200 hour yoga teacher training.

All these varied involvements have made him look at the realities of life from different angles. He has  had exposure to different aspects of life.  Photography is a passion with Mat. I asked him how his interest in photography developed. He said ‘I first became interested in photography after I injured my knee snowboarding. This was in the late 1990s. I was riding pretty much every day, mostly in the park and half pipe, and now I couldn't do so. I could still ride down the hill, but my body couldn't take the impact of freestyle riding. So I began shooting photos of my friends. This expanded to skateboarding photography, and from there to landscapes. I eventually started gravitating towards more and  more street photography-fine art documentary style. For the past couple of years I've been shooting a lot of square format work, with the same general subjects but a somewhat different compositional style’. I asked him if he had received any formal training in photography. He said, ‘In the beginning I took one college course, where I learned to develop and print black and white film, as well as print color film. From the very beginning I learned to scan film on my own and at the same time I was printing black and white in the darkroom, I was scanning color film. I've also taken some short courses, with people from National Geographic and Magnum. Mostly though, I'd say I'm pretty much self-taught’.

This ‘self-taught’ street photographer has a keen eye and loves ‘exploration, whether that's physically, emotionally or intellectually’. He thinks that common day-to-day life needs to be highlighted because, with all its problems and issues, it exists out on the streets.

Studying street life makes people street-wise. Mat has learnt a lot from his work about life on the streets. Photography has made him travel a lot. When I asked him how many places he has traveled for photography, he said ‘Nearly all of the United States, several times, a good deal of Canada and a bit of Mexico; several countries in Europe, with extended time in the UK (though I haven't actually done much photography there); Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia); with several trips to India’. Of all the places that he has seen, he likes India. He says that he likes India because ‘I love exploring the origins of my adopted Hindu heritage, and two, photographically, because everyone is so open, life is lived in the open more often than not’.

Mat has his own preferences in street photogrpahy. He says , 'If it's straight street photography, I try to capture unguarded moments in the midst of action. When I'm trying to document an event, I try to capture the emotion of the event first, the fact of the event second, with composition being my interpretation of or feeling about the event. Overall, I more and more gravitate to find feeling first. Geographically, I'm most drawn to South Asia'.

As a street photographer, he has to spend all day on foot wandering about in the streets and searching for the right subjects and images. He says , I've certainly traveled a great many places because of photography, and been able to insert myself into events because of it, though’. He has to follow people, their movements and their activities.  At times, photographers give up but it takes patience before you get the right image. A great shot can come in the street anytime. It may come when the photographer is totally exhausted and taking a break. What is important is keenness and attention on the part of the photographer. 

He has to wait on the streets for dramatic moments. When one occurs, he has to be quick to capture the fleeting point in time. 

Mat has to work much to make images that are alive. At times, he has to be close to his subjects. He remains in search of unfamilar scenes, shapes and scenarios in familar settings. He loses himself in the lives of his subjects.  At times he comes across celebrities on the streets. Once he was able to photograph Matthew Avery Modine, the American actor, when he was at Times Square for Earth Day in 2009.  

He says that on his street photography expeditions, he comes across different people with different problems. Once, he came across a Pigeon Guy in Washington Square Park. The guy was flanked by pigeons. When asked by a passerby why he liked birds so much he replied, "Because I don't like people that much. People cause too many problems."

Perhaps, Pigeon Guy was right. People cause problems when they do not care . Joe Ades is another example of how people leave you when you need their help. Mat came across Joe Ades when the latter was  selling carrot peelers in Court St, Brooklyn. Joe was an old man. Mat took a photograph of the old man to show how poor people have to struggle to keep their body and soul together. The carrot peeler peddler died two years later. His photograph reminds Mat of the old man's simple life and his small buisness that had consisted of a few boxes and a very small chair.    

At times it becomes hard for people like Joe Ades to continue their poor lives silently. So, they come on the roads and shout slogans against the remiss attitudes of governement officials towards the populace. Mat McDermott has also covered protests through his photography. He was on the streets when the Occupy Wall Street movement was in its halcyon days in the USA. 

Mat saw the OWS protests closely. He saw people sleeping on the streets in tents . They were making an effort to revolutionize the social and economic situation in the country on the pattern of the Arab Spring in Egyptian Tahrir Squire. In these protests, the malcontents voiced anger against unfair distribution of wealth and resources. These were educated people complaining against unemployment, poverty and debts.

The protesters wanted to effect a paradigm shift. In these efforts there were parents who brought their children in strollers. The children have their own world. They are too innocent to think about death, corruption and greed in the world. They are foreign to cunning ways. They cannot think that certain individuals can exploit others. They have the great power of faith . They have done no crime. They have not looted anybody and therefore sleep soundly because they have no concept of 'evil' which deprives people of sleep.

All these photos that we have seen above don’t show beautiful valleys, mountains and waterfalls. They show us ordinary life. But, they show us the beauty in it. Thus, in street photography mundane and dreary landscape of street life becomes beautiful. We begin to appreciate beauty in familiar sights. This is how street photography creates order from chaotic life on the streets. Life on the streets begins to look as beautiful as wild life in frequented resorts of the world. Life is beautiful whether it is in beautiful meadows or whether it is among orphan boys of a Mexico playing soccer at an Orphanage in Oaxaca city, Mexico.

These are isolated frames taken from different parts of the world. When we become aware of the background and context of these frames, every frame becomes a story. We can give these stories unique titles such as  'Children at a Mexican Orphanage',  'Joe Ades, the Carrot Peeler',  'Pigeon Guy' and 'Master of Degree Shackled by Debt'. These are the visual stories in which visual symbols replace letters and words of traditional stories.   

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